First Click: Don't confuse smart devices with a smart home

May 15th, 2015


Waiting on a complete smart home solution that just works out of the box is like waiting for Godot: he’s not arriving today but surely tomorrow.

It was four years and four days ago that Google announced Android@Home with the intent of extending Android into household objects. Google’s announcement brought the promise of scale and software know-how to an obtuse industry then dominated by companies better suited to drawing up wiring and plumbing schematics than user interfaces. Although Android@Home fizzled like a cool Buzz from a tasty Wave, the announcement put the entire smart home industry on notice: the big brands are coming!

Today the aisles of Home Depot are a testament to the mass consumerfication of smart home products enabled by the internet of things. Nest (now owned by Google) led the way by making something as boring as a thermostat sexy when compared to other smart options of the time. Philips has done the same to light bulbs with its Hue series. But don’t make the mistake of confusing a handful of installed smart devices with a smart home — the latter requires interoperability between the devices. While a smart device can be controlled over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth from your phone, a smart home will automatically dim the lights, lower the blinds, and adjust the heat when you switch on the home theater. Unfortunately, this tyranny of choice is making it harder to figure out what works with what.

We now know that the first Apple HomeKit devices are coming next month but it’s unlikely they’ll work with Nest thermostats or Google-owned Dropcam cameras any time soon. A Hue lightbulb, meanwhile, will work in homes built around both Apple and Google "Works with Nest" ecosystems. God only knows what will work with a Wink light switch, WeMo motion sensor, Samsung dishwasher, or that weird speaker from Amazon.

Ecosystem lock-in is a very real thing. The smart LED bulbs you install in your house could very well dictate the smartwatch you buy which in turn will define your next smartphone, tablet, laptop, TV, the car you buy, and the apps and services you can use. In time, certain home automation protocols will undoubtedly rise to the top and market dynamics will consolidate standards like the company shakeout (that caused Samsung to buy SmartThings) already underway. Until then, those in search of a truly smart DIY home can gamble on their favorite smart device turning into a fully-fledged ecosystem, or stick with the incumbent no-name products built around ZigBee, Z-Wave, and Insteon standards.

Such is the circular nature of experience and existence. Adieu.

Five stories to start your day

  1. Apple says the first HomeKit devices are coming next month

    An Apple spokeswoman says that "HomeKit has been available for just a few months and we already have dozens of partners who have committed to bringing HomeKit accessories to market and we’re looking forward to the first ones coming next month."

  2. Google’s self-driving car is hitting public roads this summer

    In a blog post, project director Chris Urmson says that a few of the prototype vehicles will drive around Mountain View, California, where the company is based. Safety drivers will accompany the cars, which will be capped at 25mph. Unlike Google's ultimate vision for the vehicles, these cars will come with a removable steering wheel, accelerator pedal, and brake pedal.

  3. Medical device maker Cur adds disclaimers to crowdfunding site after questions about FDA rules

    Cur's product is a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation machine — or a TENS machine — that is meant to alleviate pain. These devices require FDA clearance, but Cur has yet to file for it. Following the report's publication, the company reached out to us to let us know that they had changed their website. Sentences like "50 percent off for 30 days" and "get cur now" now read "support our fundraising campaign" and "invest in Cur," respectively.

  4. This is the first fully warm-blooded fish

    At first glance, the opah looks like a giant, bloated disc armed with oh-so-puny fins. The two-meter-long creature is fun to look at, and maybe laugh at, but it's got a lot more to share with you than its looks. As it turns out, it's the only "truly warm-blooded fish," according to National Geographic — and it's pretty fast, to boot.

  5. Watch the once-lost short film that ran before The Empire Strikes Back

    Black Angel almost slipped into movie folklore. The 25-minute short film, directed by Empire Strikes Back art director Roger Christian, was played before the fifth Star Wars episode when Lucas' movie opened in Europe in 1980. While Star Wars went on to become a cultural juggernaut, the original prints for Black Angel were lost. Now, 35 years after it disappeared from movie theaters, Black Angel has arrived on YouTube.

Sean Penn of the day